Don't be Apathetic about Apatheia
One interesting aspect of philokalic spirituality is what the desert fathers describe as “apatheia”. It is the fruit of one’s long struggle with the passions through the ascetic life and prayer and is considered a positive state of grace. Even though the word has its origin in stoic philosophy, in the Eastern Christian spiritual tradition it has nothing to do with stoic apathy, or what might be considered a state of indifference. “It is a positive state of self-control, or rather, Christ-control or Spirit-control. It is the stilling of all the passionate thoughts through askesis, purity of heart, and the gift of tears. It is being anchored and rooted in God, in the peace that passes all understanding” (Coniaris, “Beginners Introduction to the Philokalia, 70).
Thus, it expresses a kind of deep freedom that only comes through absolute dependence upon God and His grace. Apatheia is not something one achieves simply through strength of will but rather through such a radical openness to God’s grace and action that a man “no longer lives for himself, but Christ lives in him.” Also translated as “dispassion”, it has been described as a restoration of the state of our true nature and living in the freedom that is ours as those who have been made sons and daughters of God. The passions have not been destroyed but rather transformed and ordered towards God and the peace of the kingdom: man by grace exerts a control over the passions and is in charge of himself once again.
Psychologically this is not a suppression or a cutting off of the soul’s powers; not an unhealthy functioning but rather a redirecting of those powers toward the good and the holy. The dispassionate man is freer to love and give himself in love because he is no longer driven by selfish desire. We see this in the saints who commonly manifest the glory, the freedom, and the joy of the kingdom. St. Symeon the New Theologian describes it as a “foretaste of heaven, God’s reward for those who have ‘fought the good fight of faith’” (Coniaris, 74).
This transfiguration of the passions has been captured beautifully by St. John Climacus who wrote: “I have seen impure souls who threw themselves headlong into physical eros to a frenzied degree. It was their very experience of that eros that led them to interior conversion. They concentrated their eros (love) on the Lord. Rising above fear they tried to love God with an insatiable desire. That is why, when Christ spoke of the woman who had been a sinner, he did not say that she had been afraid, but that she had loved much and had easily been able to surmount love by love” (Coniaris, Philokalia, The Bible of Orthodox Spirituality, 162).
The rewards of the struggle for apatheia are great and by God’s grace the passions can be turned into virtues. Anthony Coniaris writes: “pride can become humility; lust can become agape, the sacrificial love that God has for us; anger can become righteous indignation against evil; greed can become generosity; unfaithfulness can become steadfastness; envy can become ‘rejoicing with those who rejoice;‘ sloth can become diligence; sensuality can become spirituality - all of this can be accomplished by God’s grace and our cooperation with His grace through askesis, prayer, and vigilance.
Such a notion is so foreign in contemporary culture that sees and understands freedom as the ability to do whatever one wants and to satisfy one’s desires, even the basest of them without restriction, internal or external. Therefore, the joy of chaste love is mocked and denigrated because it is rarely experienced or sought. The bondage that most people in our hyper-sexualized or hyper-sensualized culture experience is so great that the freedom and the increased capacity for love is beyond their conception. Their true self and personality has become so stunted and immature in its development that it fosters a profound boredom and inner dis-ease that can only be addressed by constantly pushing the boundaries of what is moral and ethical. This shifting of boundaries gradually and inevitably leads to a disintegration of self and identity. The depth and the beauty of all that is good and true about the human person is exchanged for the superficial and the banal.
The fruit of dispassion/apatheia, however, is the restoration and integration of the human person. Fr. George Florovsky defines it as “a state of spiritual activity, which is acquired only after struggles and ordeals . . . Each person’s ‘I‘ is finally regained, freeing oneself from fatal bondage. But one can regain oneself only in God. True ‘impassibility‘ is achieved only in an encounter with the Living God. The path which leads there is the path of obedience, even of servitude to God, but this servitude engenders true freedom . . . In God the personality is restored and reintegrated in the Holy Spirit” (Coniaris, 166).
We are desiring beings, which means we experience a certain lack or incompleteness in ourselves; a lack that only God can ultimately satisfy and fulfill. Apatheia restores our ability not only to see this truth but also the freedom to desire virtue and “redirect the energy of the passions toward loving that which holy and good” (Coniaris, 166).